The story of reedman Eric Dolphy is one of the saddest chapters in jazz history. A highly influential improviser who extended the vocabularies of both the alto saxophone and the flute and helped make the bass clarinet a viable solo instrument, Dolphy never received enough financial reward or critical acclaim for his innovations. And Dolphy never led a steady, working ensemble that would have enabled him to explore the different personalities of its individual voices or develop the deep sense of empathy among players that typified the combos of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. Instead, his best playing was captured mostly while he served as a sideman for the likes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Gunther Schuller. But he did make some compelling albums as a leader and, in 1964, recorded the epochal Out to Lunch, which remains one of free jazz’s most stirring albums. Unfortunately, that same year, Dolphy died in Berlin, where he was mistaken for a junkie and refused proper medical treatment for diabetes.
Out to Lunch is not only Dolphy’s most important statement as a leader; it is also one of Blue Note’s most beloved albums. And, like Dolphy’s tenure with various ensembles, his time with Blue Note was short. But the label has reached into the vaults for previously unreleased recordings by the reedman more than once. In 1987, Blue Note released Other Aspects, recorded in 1960. Now it’s followed up with The Illinois Concert, which presents recordings made at the University of Illinois in 1963. Whereas Other Aspects sounded like fragmented ideas in search of cogent songs, The Illinois Concert holds together quite nicely, suggesting what could—or should—have been. Reportedly, the disc is the only document of pianist Herbie Hancock’s work with Dolphy’s quartet. If Dolphy’s alto spiraling atop Hancock’s barrage of harmonic undercurrents doesn’t have you cursing the cruel fate that prevented further recordings from The Illinois Concert’s lineup, then the furious ruckus concocted by bassist Eddie Khan and drummer J.C. Moses surely will.
The performance captured on The Illinois Concert was a part of the university’s 11th Festival of Contemporary Arts and took place the evening after a long, heated panel discussion on “Approaches to Improvisation.” Dolphy was the only jazz musician on the panel, and his organic musical approach—which included listening to birdcalls for inspiration—was in direct contrast to the more highly mannered, European-rooted methods of the other panel members. With everything to prove, Dolphy emphasized the possibilities of collective improvisation in his performance, which was infused with potentially riot-inducing agitation.
The quartet’s 20-minute tour-de-force reading of Oscar Hammerstein and Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” surely infuriated some of the more academic listeners in the audience. Dolphy waited until near the end of the piece to halfheartedly state the melody. And the group’s approach to the classic show tune was anything but soft: Dolphy’s bass clarinet weaves, gurgles, and shrieks its way through queasy contortions, Moses propels the music with the jittering intensity of Elvin Jones, and Khan grounds the hyperactivity with near-black-hole density—all while the 22-year-old Hancock goes for broke on the piano. Sounding hellbent on not aping the chromatic blocks of McCoy Tyner, Hancock hammers out jarring chords with his left hand while he unfurls bluesy, fragmented melodies with his restless right. The overall result is a Herculean performance that challenges John Coltrane’s live rendition of the same tune at the Village Vanguard.
But if “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” pissed people off, Dolphy’s heart-wrenching solo reading of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” must have left them breathless. On bass clarinet, Dolphy balances dissonance with consonance so masterfully that despite elaborate corkscrew swirls, brutal tongue slaps, and athletic interval leaps, he keeps the melodic structure intact and fluid. At once ponderous and pithy, “God Bless the Child” is the concert’s most enchanting moment.
Dolphy used the concert not only to demonstrate his formidable improvisatory skills, but also to test-drive some new compositions and re-examine some old ones. Although here the too-brief “Something Sweet, Something Tender” functions primarily as an interlude between “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” and “God Bless the Child,” the haunting ballad, included in another version on Out to Lunch, later became a hallmark of his performances. Much more developed is the quicksilver “South Street Exit,” which Dolphy recorded again later that year for the album Last Date. His amazing flute solo is, unfortunately, poorly miked. And Hancock’s frustratingly inchoate piano accompaniment nearly overwhelms the rest of the ensemble. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear how Dolphy’s intense study of birdcalls informed his playing—his solo flutters with the grace and intensity of a hummingbird.
During the same period, Dolphy was fascinated with large-ensemble collaborations. Having recently played on Coltrane’s Africa/Brass sessions and earlier written “G.W.” (dedicated to noted big-band leader Gerald Wilson, with whom he had studied in Los Angeles), Dolphy used the Illinois performance to broaden his sonic palette with just such a collaboration. “Red Planet” and “G.W.,” for which the quartet was augmented by the University of Illinois Brass Ensemble, betray Dolphy’s Third Stream leanings as well as echo Africa/Brass. In fact, many musicologists argue that Dolphy’s “Red Planet” first appeared on Coltrane’s self-titled Impulse album under the name “Miles’ Mode,” credited to Coltrane. Whether it’s Dolphy’s or Coltrane’s, “Red Planet” captures the turbulent spirit of ’60s post-bop angst: Dolphy’s piercing alto saxophone darts through Hancock’s prismatic accompaniment and Moses’ jagged rhythms.
“G.W.,” which was first recorded by a quartet configuration on Dolphy’s 1960 debut album, Outward Bound, uses the student brass ensemble more effectively. Whereas “Red Planet” basically has the brass ensemble contributing some underwhelming swells at the beginning and end, “G.W.” has it functioning as a sonic backdrop of swarming tonalities. The approach owes a huge debt to Mingus and Oliver Nelson, but both Dolphy’s gnarly alto blasts and the combustive drive of the rhythm section keep the performance firmly rooted in an avant-bop mode.
Whether Dolphy intended The Illinois Concert to be commercially released remains a mystery, as do the details of the panel discussion that led to such a fireball of a performance. But ultimately, the album will appeal most to those hardcore Dolphy fans interested in imagining what might have resulted from his collaboration with Hancock. The Illinois Concert is no newly discovered classic, but it’s not just a history lesson, either—it’s an eloquent and powerful document of musical genius at work. CP